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The Notorious B.I.G.
Life After Death
(Bad Boy)

Though the Notorious B.I.G.'s debut offered a portrait of rich potential snuffed by despair, Life After Death fights such despair hard, from beginning to end. This epic of an album begins with a horrific death scene (a father repeatedly plugged in the back while holding his baby daughter), and the rest of the album tries to find a way to live past this point. The album- ending cut, "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)," begins with a recitation of the 23rd Psalm.

The late Christopher Wallace (a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Small) was an artist committed to the fighters of what he repeatedly called "the struggle." When Wallace offers "The Ten Crack Commandments" in the middle of the album, he is simply giving advice for working the system, a system that thrives on dope slangin', from the streets to the tops of corporate high-rises. In "Notorious Thugs" he asks of such players outside the ghetto, "You tell me, who is worse?" In "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)" he lays out his gangsta vision: "The green tempts me to make the rich the enemy ... make my faculty live happily ever after."

The five songs that close the album throw hands up against the divisive hysteria ripping the rap community apart. In particular, "The Long Kiss Goodnight" shouts out, "We're not talking 'bout no other rappers!" In fact, the album consciously features a community of musicians from both coasts and the Midwest.

After all, music is the lifeline the album celebrates. Life After Death offers panoramic sound with washes and blasts of keyboard and vocals jumping out of every inch of the canvas, all of this shifting over a dark, buoyant bottom. This wide-angle vision offers a big rounded musical world, both masculine and feminine. Though the album is often tainted by misogyny, the life-affirming grace of women informs cut after cut, from lyrical references to the Crystals to repeated samples of Diana Ross and guest vocals by, most notably, Angela Winbush, Lil' Kim, and Faith Evans. It is also worth noting that women often provide the conscience of the album, whether as the victims in "Somebody's Gotta Die" or the second verse of "Miss U," or as the voice of Biggie's own mother at the beginning of "Sky's the Limit."

The three stories that end the first disc affect the way a listener must hear the rest of the album. "Niggas Bleed" offers gritty violence against menacing strings and harpsichord, while "I Got a Story to Tell" repeats the same story twice, differently, although against the same light, acoustic guitar riffs -- once with heart-stopping suspense, then with ribald humor. These narratives showcase Wallace's rapid-fire imagery and facility of tone, which highlight every cut on the album. At the same time, they reveal the power of rap as storytelling and as therapy, as a means to understanding and as a way to give meaning to life.

-- Danny Alexander

Tuatara
Breaking the Ethers
(Epic)

Question: What do you get when you take members from several radio-friendly kinda-alternative bands and throw them into a studio together?

Answer: Music you will never hear on the radio, because (a) it's all instrumental and (b) it's far too original.

Tuatara is a new Seattle supergroup comprising Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees), Justin Harwood (Luna), Peter Buck (R.E.M.), and Skerik (Critters Buggin). Others who sit in on Breaking the Ethers include Mike McCready (Pearl Jam), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows), and Steve Berlin (Los Lobos). All seem to base their participation on a shared tenet: There are dozens of musical instruments in the world, so why confine yourself to the basic three?

Nowhere is that philosophy more clear than on the title cut, which employs instruments obscure even to the musically schooled. (Extra credit goes to anyone who can describe what a bullroarer is.) The track begins with an ominous hum like a horde of locusts, then slides into what could be an accompaniment to the mushroom-ritual scene in Altered States. And it's not the only tune with cinematic potential: "Saturday Night Church" would fit perfectly as the soundtrack to some really cool independent film.

Each of the album's eleven compositions gives a different instrument a chance to shine. "Smoke Rings" features marimbas -- both the standard variety and a more resonant bass kind; "The Desert Sky" is sitar-dominated; "Land of Apples" is sweetened by the crystal-glass shimmer of a harmonium; and "The Getaway" blends two assertive saxophones with quirky upright bass and a pair of electric guitars (one of the few instances where a nonacoustic instrument is used).

Breaking the Ethers manages to embrace world music without succumbing to the vapidness of the new-age genre. Every piece has personality, from the mystical "Eastern Star" to the Latin-flavored "Goodnight La Habana" to the dueling drums and congas of "Burning the Keys." One can only wish that the members of Tuatara were allowed this degree of creative freedom within their own respective bands.

-- Debbie Gilbert

Redman
Muddy Waters
(Def Jam Music Group)

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